You did not begin teaching until you were in your forties. Even when you began, you approached it with an air of suspicion, born of a long, painful time of reading through the slush piles of unsolicited manuscripts on your way to becoming an editor. This suspicion made great sense at the time, because teaching had called to you rather than you calling to it.
Your teaching appointment came because you were an editor, which meant you no longer had to read through slush piles; you had assistants who did that. Instead, you got to invite and solicit things, most of which you were at the extreme rat tail of the curve of choice likely to read all the way through. When you explained this to the person who hired you to teach, he offered you a teaching assistant, who would in effect read through the slush from students.
The icing on the teaching cake was the fact of the teaching assistant having himself already published a book At the time you were called to teaching, the entire concept of it was an outlier, one of the farthest things from your mind. The last time you'd given any thought at all to teaching was when you'd signed up for a course in education to allow you to pursue a student named Janet. Neither the course nor Janet went the way you'd hoped. There was no future in either.
Having a job as an editor meant you were established enough in an occupation to move you beyond such previous jobs as a painter's assistant, a parking lot attendant, an assistant at a luggage repair shop, a telephone solicitor, a carnival pitchman, an auctioneer's assistant, and a night watchman.
Being an editor was a respectable job for a writer. There was no need to consider teaching. Because there is in fact, reason to believe irony occupies a place in the genome of Reality, things one does not need to consider often come to one, either as an inducement from Reality or an indication that Reality has a sense of humor.
In much the same way being an editor became a negotiated settlement between you and Reality, teaching became another such negotiation. After you've been teaching for at least five years, you heard yourself in class one evening, offering in a brief lecture about the structure of a short story the observation, "The payoff of a short story is a negotiated settlement with reality."
There'd been other things you'd said that impressed you, but this one has remained constant over the years since its first utterance. With that statement, you recognized you were not only giving students worthwhile guidance, you were in a vivid sense accepting the fact of you being a teacher as well as an editor, and were on your way to the additional negotiation that you needed both to be the writer you wished to be.
Growing into Reality can be a ponderous, difficult thing, filled with unexpected turns, mazes, dead ends, and one-way streets. This awareness is hard-won at best, given the way you were introduced to it by your parents and the propaganda presented by your culture as you appeared on the planet in time to feel many of the effects of The Great Depression and World War II.
Reality, as you see it, can be compared to the publishing industry in the sense of it being a constant stream of unsolicited events as they overwhelm the planned considered ones. If Reality has a personality at all, it is a stolid one of near troglodytes. Reality is Capitalism as the sorcerer's apprentice, an avalanche of event, overwhelming, incessant.
In most ways, Reality is what the individual brings to it. Hopeful, propaganda-biased individuals are more likely to arrive at the awareness of Reality as an analog to the house odds at a gambling casino, a few occasional payoffs, many near misses, and disappointing outcomes.
Many individuals approach story the way they save for vacations to Las Vegas, with hope for the big win or at least enough to have paid expenses. You admire their perennial hope as they board the bus to the nearest casino or stand in line for tickets to the latest feel-good movie. You have nothing against them, but you do have the sense of them not sharing your tastes nor you theirs. They are not likely to be readers of your stories nor you of theirs.
The only certainty you can see in Reality is that it will continue, without form or attribute. Your dealings with it depend on your ability to have conversations with your expectations when you are offered options.
In this universe where Reality takes on the role of the Casino in terms of house odds, you see ambiguity and flexibility as key players in story. You admire gamblers who are thrown out of casinos for counting cards or demonstrating an in-the-moment ability to compute event. Their ability intrigues you without causing you envy. Players who double down seem to radiate a way of confronting desperation, risk, and openness to consequence that attracts you, makes you want to stop and watch the outcome.
Sunday, August 2, 2015
You did not begin teaching until you were in your forties. Even when you began, you approached it with an air of suspicion, born of a long, painful time of reading through the slush piles of unsolicited manuscripts on your way to becoming an editor. This suspicion made great sense at the time, because teaching had called to you rather than you calling to it.
Saturday, August 1, 2015
Somewhere along your way from then to now, things began to lose their ability to define themselves as they once had. Although things remained what they were, they also radiated other possibilities. Dots and dashes became the Morse code. Semaphore and nautical flags had meanings depending on the order in which they were displayed. Ice cubes melted.
You learned to construct secret codes of your own, based on picking a letter from the alphabet at random, then assigning to it the value of A, its successor becoming B, until you'd gone through the available options, leading you to the true A, which could have well had the value of a G or an H.
You began to wonder then what other hidden meanings lay in wait for you to discover. At the time, you still had few things you wished to hide, but by then you'd begun to read of individuals such as Leonardo Da Vinco and Gallileo, who found the need to write in code. Buoyed by their need for secrecy, you began to nourish hopes for discoveries that must be reported with care and stealth.
A stone was no longer a mere stone, at rest in a spread of other stones. You lifted such a stone, hefted it to see all its surfaces, then assessed its potential for movement on its own. Why should the innate ability of a stone to move have consequences for the boy whom you were, the boy who could concoct a code, but had nothing to encrypt?
The stone had consequence because you'd arrived at a defining point. You'd been exposed to the conventional wisdom of your culture long enough to cause the onset of dissatisfaction. You could accept the answers of received understanding--water at sea level will boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius; the sun orbits about the earth--or you could begin a slow, deliberate questioning of everything you saw until you in some way understood the logic of the wisdom.
Sure enough, the stone in your hand revealed to you a tiny particle of what might be moss or lichen. Given the stone's shape, you could see it had once rolled, but had settled in somewhere, long enough to gather moss.
You pitched the stone some distance from where you'd found it, wished it well in its new venue, then forgot about it until this writing of the incident. How had it fared since then in this new setting so dependent on your whim when you cast it into its future? The great probability you had in mind when casting it rather than dropping it where you'd found it was to see how far you could throw a stone.
This is no idle speculation of whether stones have the ability to fare well or ill. Rather, this is a recognition that you and the stone, the one with scant traces of moss or lichen, are kindred entities, both of you cast by forces of which you have little or no control.
Your decision for yourself, based on a combination of whim and deliberation, is to gather as little moss as possible. Even then, you hope to have made some considered choices about the nature and quality of any moss you might gather. Your choices are sure to reflect the possible metaphorical connection between the culture from which you come, the cultures you've investigated, and the observations you've made while still seeing no need to encrypt them. Rather the opposite, in fact,
This leaves you at the moment with, among other things, the consequences of throwing that one stone, yards from where you found it. If, as you believe, one has a responsibility for the consequences of one's actions, you compose this with the awareness of some connection to that stone, thrown so long ago. You are the sum of all consequences of your actions, not only the consequence of having thrown that stone but for the total of all such actions including those you no longer remember.
You are primarily grateful to your parents for having caused you to be here now, mindful you might not be here, were it not for the SIDS death of their first-born son. Through much of your early years, you were aware of the grief you mother carried over this loss. Your father was not one to speak of or demonstrate grief, but watching him after the death of his mother, you understood but could not decipher the code of his grief. Each lived into the ninth decade, which conventional wisdom and observation tell you is a long ride. You pay out your grief by seeing each in your dreams.
Your sister did not have as long a ride. On occasion, you see her in your dreams, but more often you see her in terms of you thinking to call her, as you often did, to report consequences of you, being cast here and there, as you cast the stone. There is great comfort braided in with the awareness that you can no longer call her; you had her to call and the habit persists.
From time to time, you wondered fancifully how you would have fared with an older brother, and indeed you've begun to address this consequence of your life in a novel, where you have given your protagonist the need to engage and repair a contentious relationship with an older brother.
At one point, you made considerable effort to locate the burial place of your older sibling, dead at age six months. Some cemetery in the east side of Los Angeles. At once point, in some attempt at solidarity with your mother, you even volunteered to go with her, but your offer was not accepted. At one point, when she returned from a visit, she was saddened by the disrepair of the grounds.
He, wherever his remains have reposed all these years, is as distant from you as the stone you once cast, but his consequences and yours persist.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Your early adventures with reading bore a great resemblance to your experiences with Jell-o. The stories you gravitated toward tended to be told by an I narrator or in a format you would later learn was called omniscient.
So far as Jell-o was concerned, there was the Jell-o of the cafeteria, near pellucid, certainly clear enough to allow sight of some stray canned pear or grape lurking about. There was the Jell-o of your maternal grandmother, a murky Jell-o, mixed with a generous proportion of vanilla ice cream before being allowed to jell. In those cloudy depths, you often encountered the occasional small marshmallow, a chunk of pineapple, fresh or canned cherries, even from time to time a slice of banana.
Your preferences were for the first-person narration, although you could not say why at the time. Later, as your interest in reading became more surgical, you began to see how a story, told by its main participant, could seem more authentic than those told by some authorial presence.
Somewhere along the way, which is to say your sophomore year at college, a writing instructor took note of the large Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway you carried about. "Before you get too caught up with him," he told you, "you ought to read some southern writers."
You'd already run through Thomas Wolfe, who did not impress you as much as stories of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, impressed you, which you shared with the instructor. "Well, then, " he said. "Write this down." He gave you a title which you liked the sound of, straight off. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. That had a grab to it. You remember looking at the teacher, the title half written in your notebook, thinking you would like to write a novel with a title like that.
You were big on titles, then, often filling pages of your notebooks with titles you'd like to write a novel about, when and if the lectures you were attending eluded your interest. You were already alerted to the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, because he'd written the poem from which Steinbeck got his title, Of Mice and Men. You were also, at the moment, taken with another Burns poem, in which he is speculating how nice it would be for us to see ourselves as others see us.
In addition to Burns, you were going through Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and The Jabberwocky, thinking of the possibilities of novels with such titles as For the Snark Was a Boojum, and Oh, My Beamish Nephew.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was another matter, altogether; it implied the delicious sense of a person surrounded by kind and supportive family, yet alone because of different interests, goals, and curiosity. You found the book in the library, took it across the street to a campus restaurant called Dick and Phil's, where you ordered coffee and banana cream pie, then began to read.
You were immediately engrossed to the point where a waiter asked you if there were problems related to your coffee and pie because you had touched neither. In addition, you'd read well beyond the time when you could be at your four o'clock class.
By this time in your life, you were aware of the narrative persons, first, second, third, multiple, and omniscient, if not to the muscle memory of multiplication tables or the valence of the then known elements, at least to the point where you could frame examples of books you'd read, written in each.
You had in fact read novels told in the multiple point of view, but it took Carson McCullers' novel to make the concept take on a wicked, splendid, unlimited potential. She was not only advancing a story via multiple voices, each one was markedly different from the other, yet seeming to contest one another for use of language, implication of mood, and the conveyance of feelings you could feel without having them explained to you. The events explained the feelings to you.
To add to the already simmering stew, there was a nudge toward Robert Burns in the character of John Singer, the second of two mutes. Singer had frequent cause to wonder why the other characters were coming to him to express their most intimate concerns, as though he had some ability to understand them better than anyone else could..
The instructor nodded when you reported your reaction to Carson McCullers' work, nor did you fail to mention that she'd been only three or four years older than you were when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
You set Hemingway aside, tried your hand at Faulkner, hit a road block there, but vowed to return. The twists and turns of language were beckoning, calling, daring you, taunting you. So was the growing notion that multiple point of view had some hidden treasures, and you had better start digging.
John comes forth with a goal and a plan to implement it. Bill not only doesn't have much faith in it, the plan somehow threatens him. Charlie thinks John and Bill are both crazy. Mary has her own path to the goal, but no one will listen to her, because sharp visions are even more threatening. Sally thinks Mary is being ignored because, well, because she's a woman. There, you have a spectrum. Now, go tell your story.
You would not have expected this to happen, but a friend turned you on to the Floridian mystery writer, John D. McDonald, whose multiple point of view novel, The Damned, convinced you to have another shot at The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Things were beginning to make sense, Multiple points of view were entryways to making a simple story open its soul to you. Now you could--and did--give Faulkner another try.
The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Back to back. Oh, my.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
During the time you lived in Mexico City, you grew to respect its sprawling vastness, but you'd come there from Los Angeles, which has a few ideas of its own about sprawl and vastness. One particular day, when you were attempting to track down the office of a person to whom you'd just been sent a letter of introduction--Mexico City residents were big on letters of introduction and indeed, letters of introduction had got you at least two jobs--you discovered you were lost.
Surprised, yes. Nevertheless, lost. You walked about the perimeter of a large square, hopeful of coming on some recognizable point of entry. As you bore on in your attempts at orientation, you heard your name being called. Not what your acquaintances in Mexico City called you, certainly not in the Mexico City Spanish, which in its way is the equivalent of BBC English. Definitely in California English of the sort you were used to in Los Angeles.
For reasons still not clear to you, most of your acquaintances in Los Angeles called you by both names. One or two closer friends called you by your last name, one or two by your first, but most of the time it was the full version. Thus, as the hailing voice grew closer and you strained to see through the crowd within the square who your hailer was, you heard your full name and the question you were also used to hearing without quite knowing why. "Shelly Lowenkopf, what are you doing here?" Accent on the you.
"Trying," you said, "to orient myself and get back to--" You paused here. You'd been about to say El Centro, which is the part of the Mexico City sprawl where you lived. There are as well Colonias or Colonies, or Neighborhoods. Colonia Condessa, etc. But by now you'd identified your friends and paused before saying El Centro lest they think you meant El Centro, California, Such was your nature at the time that you may well have been trying to get to El Centro, California. "--downtown," you said, "Avenida Reforma."
"You haven't changed a bit," they said.
Thus, someone you know, miles away from home, finding you, also miles from home,
During the time you were associated, if that is an appropriate word, with a traveling carnival, working at a baseball-throw booth, where the goal was to knock over a pyramid of milk bottles , using three baseballs to accomplish the task, you were approached by a girl you'd dated occasionally at UCLA. The carnival was either Bakersfield or Ventura. Same scenario. "Shelly Lowenkopf, what are you doing here?"
"Trying," you said, "to make enough money to support three or four months of writing."
"You get paid to do this?"
Then, "You haven't changed a bit."
During the times when you were involved with book publishing at another level than you are now, you were returning from what you judged to be a five-mile run in and about Central Park in New York, the endorphin smile broadening your face and the perspiration running riot as you ventured to cross what was once Sixth Avenue and now known as Avenue of the Americas.
The question. "What are you doing here?'
"About to shower, then dress for a dinner meeting."
Again, you were told you hadn't changed.
Yet another time, you are in New York, moving along with the crowd on Madison Avenue toward your destination at 45th Street, when you pass a man alighting from a cab. He recognizes you, calls you by both names. His name is Victor/ He doesn't ask you what you are doing here; he probably guessed your destination, the Paul Stewart men's store. Instead, he has another question for you. "Why didn't you take the job I offered?"
Victor is a New Yorker, Trim, elegant, businesslike. He does not wait for your answer. For one thing, the answer doesn't matter. For another, there is little or no hesitation in the worlds of New York you are familiar with. No equivocations or subjunctives or conditionals. Everything is declarative sentences. Pastrami on rye. Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray tonic. "Seventy-sixth Street. The Carlyle." "You from LA or something, I don't know where the Carlyle is?" That New York.
Victor does not wait for your answer, neither does he tell you you haven't changed. In fact, you have changed. Once on the ferry to San Juan Island, you were asked what you were doing and you were able to reply that you were about to have some of what you considered the best overall clam chowder of you experience. It may have seemed to the individual who told you you hadn't changed a bit that his observation was accurate. At the time, it may have seemed accurate to you. But what matters now is that you in all those times and places, you were moving with great eagerness toward where you are now.
At the moment, you've come off a disappointing royalty statement, are in a situation where at least four publishers have expressed guarded interest in your project underway, including the one publisher you always believed you wanted more than any other publisher. When, in fact, early in your career, you met one of the principals of this publisher, you told him quite matter-of-factly that he someday would publish you.
More than likely not. But of more matter, your eagerness to finish the project more than any speculation about who, when and if. So you see, you have changed.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
The major factor of power governs most dramatic narrative, beginning in story where the narrator is young, living with parents or in some state run organization, extending into adulthood, when the focal character is an employee or in some manner or other reports to another adult.
In some cultures, professional associations, or orders of a spiritually based hierarchy, the recognition of power is an integral part of the maturation process. This leads to an exaggerated extreme here of an individual, regardless of gender, rising through the ranks, as it were to become recognized as a tribal elder.
Instances of individuals growing through childhood and into maturity without having to recognize some external power are rare: the occasional emperor, tribal chieftain, but in the Western cultures, and certainly in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "The Rich Boy," even the young scion of a wealthy family experiences some time under some thumb of power.
The good news here begins with the awareness of power as a universal social force, which carries over into the world of story in plays, narrative epics such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and historical fiction such as Ivanhoe. Tales of power are ubiquitous and inspiring, resonant with the tingle of giving voice to things under cultural lock and key.
Many of the more modern dramas deal with clashes of power in ways that have become cultural archetypes. Notable among these, the plays, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabbler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and what many critics have come to regard as America's finest play to date, A Streetcar Named Desire.
Of the many variations on the theme of generational power is the version in which a parent exercises parental power by deciding to place a child in a private school, a parochial school, or home teaching rather than send the child to a public school. Either choice sends the child for some time--perhaps for life--into a predetermined arrangement of facts, information, and propaganda.
Through the merest of chance, your parents caused you to begin your education in California, supplement or augment it in the East, expand upon it in New England, then subject it to the standards of the State of Florida, which at once delivered a favor to you although at the time the package seemed more a surprise or confusion. It was, however, enough, Text books and the guidance of teachers in Florida contributed directly to you beginning to understand how urgent it was for you to question authority if you were to have any sense of comfort.
By the time you'd returned to California, floundered through junior high school and high school, then embarked on the tsunami wave of a university where different cultures, political points of view, and academic departmental rivalries clashed with the collision of students bent on discovering if it was true what was said about the mead halls in Beowulf, you were ready to interact with a diverse population of peers who had in one way or another been caught between the rocks and hard places of culture.
The aftereffects of revolution are as chaotic as the revolutions, themselves. You needed space to assimilate the remains of the cultures awaiting you as you inched toward adulthood, one can of beer at a time and to discover the presence and effects of power in the literature you took in as though literature were the cups of GatorAde so freely available at half and whole marathons.
To date, your fondest uses of power in story have to do with an individual by some discovery of ripening awareness, discovering she or he no longer in in the thrall of an individual, a system, a culture, an institution, indeed, a family. You dote on those brief moments of awareness when the individual who once held power comes to realize his or her acolyte no longer recognizes the need, the obligation, or even the tradition of the hierarchy of power.
You no longer own me, the newly anointed seem to say, often in coming of age novels, or mainstream adventures. The voice filling the page is the voice of coming of age to discover the uncreated conscience of being.
Good luck and all to that. Power stories do not always end well. They end up with the awareness that we--you among them--have to keep close monitor of the self, lest it become as cavalier as the targets it attempts to satirize or bring down using the anarchist's battering ram.
If someone is going to have power over you, you want that power to be as close to you as possible. The last thing you want is the absolute need to walk into a Twelve Step Recovery meeting, introduce yourself to the assembled host by admitting your addiction, and saying you have no control over you life because of----fill in the blank here.
The writing life is a constant struggle to get in the first place, then be able to call up at will the power to listen to the universe, then put down on a screen, somewhere close to a save button.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Let's take a moment or two to consider the bar, by which you mean the fabled bar that is being raised or lowered. That particular bar reminds you of a specific bar you had to deal with every semester of your high school career. That bar was located in a small, sawdust-covered patch in the northwest corner of the Boys athletic field of Fairfax High School, 7850 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
The bar was eight feet long, mounted between two upright posts. A series of holes drilled into these uprights allowed the bar to be positioned at about the level of the waist of the individual using it. The goal was to begin by vaulting over the bar, using only your hands, No fair to use your feet for any part of the exercise. By whatever standard being used, you got a C for vaulting over the bat set at your waist level.
To get a B, you had to raise your body to shoulder height, using only your hands and arms, then bring your legs over the bar without touching it. Then you could let go and land or tumble into a pit of sawdust.
To get an A on this particular test, you had to raise yourself to the bar, which was now set at your approximate height, bring up your legs, then swing them over the bar without either foot touching the bar.
Any number of boys got As on this test. You approached the test with the sure knowledge that you would make up for this C with some remarkable performance in the broad jump or the running hop, skip, and jump, or the mile run, for which you'd get a grade of A for running in under six and a half minutes.
To show your scorn for the bar vault, you took to approaching it, when set at the height of your waist, then diving over it without using your hands as leverage, tucking yourself into a ball, then landing in the sawdust with a roll, from which you sprang up with a look of disdain.
At one point, in your senior year, you actually were able to get over the bar when it was set at shoulder level, but that was an outlier, a freak of a performance. You were not, you told yourself, the kind of boy who went around getting As in physical education.
Only in later years, after you were out of your schoolroom studies, did the concept of raising or lowering the bar mean anything to you other than that high school physical education confrontation and what one of your gym teachers referred to as your "statement" approach to vaulting the bar.
Somewhere in your twenties then, the concept of raising and lowering a bar took on the meaning for you of raising or lowering standards. To demonstrate your relative degree of callowness at the time, your attitudes toward standards had not changed all that much since high school. Couldn't do beyond a C in physical ed, never mind. Wasn't as though you were a jock. Wasn't as though you couldn't keep the GPA up with a remarkable performance in another class. When, and if, you wished.
Somewhere within this time frame, the concept of the bar began an independent life in which you were seeing the height of the bar set beyond reach by the authors you'd begun to admire and with whom, in the dimly lit gymnasium of your ego, you'd begun to see a form of competition beginning to form.
To carry this sense of the inner bar to an exaggerated-yet-accurate sense of your own progress in the world, you recall the morning of your thirty-eighth birthday, when you began to assess your progress. You reminded yourself that you were already one year older than Mozart was when he died, and nearly the same age as George Gershwin, who also left the party way too early.
Picking those two as bars of stature, versatility, and an incredible body of work made it easy for you to indulge the trope, "And you call yourself a writer." This worked well so far as the sheer number of written words mattered, but it said little or nothing of quality.
To this day, some of the high school braggadocio of the dive over the waist-high bar is concerned, but most of the competitiveness is gone, replaced by serious respect and admiration for those who are actual students of yours or the likes of a Karen Russell, who is old enough to have been one of your students.
The bar remains and from time to time, when you see something that has the effect of stunning you into a thoughtful silence, you've reached the basic place for characters, moments before story begins. Most persons and all characters have in common the wish for happiness. Even if they are happy now, they cannot help thinking about raising the bar to see how, with a bit more effort, greater happiness or a more continuous happiness can be achieved.
What keeps you going now is habit, which may turn out to be what happiness is for you. You have the habit, however slapdash and still emerging, keeps you working at ways to get over the bar. With a certain note of irreverence, you are drawn back to your Victorian Literature class and some long, interminable associations with that quintessential Victorian poet, Alfred Tennyson, who took the laureate mantle after Wordsworth.
A bar can also be a sandpit, an oceangoing barrier to negotiate. Thus:
Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Monday, July 27, 2015
All humor has a target. If there were no target, there would be the total anarchy of launching missiles of ridicule or witticism or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) of scorn with no thought to where they might land.
Such resulting anarchy might occur from time to time, but as behavior, it cannot be thought of as humor, perhaps instead the complaints of the privileged and the bored.
The more you look at the mechanics of humor, the more one observation moves to the head of the line. There is no such thing as victimless humor.
Humor can be as deadly a device as the IED, its goal to topple someone or something from power or ascendancy, to in effect level the playing field by humiliating its target. Returning for a moment to our mythic past, we recall somewhere within the sock drawer of our culture the story of the emperor with no clothes and of the one brave individual who gave voice to the observation.
"The emperor has no clothes" is an early trademark of humor, calling our attention to the niceties of protocol and politeness, where nudity may be expected among the peasants but is in no way to be spoken of in relationship to the royalty.
Historically, targets of humor have ranged from class distinctions to gender distinctions, regional and ethnic differences, institutional differences, and the highly charged implications of marriages.
Going as far back as Aristophanes play, Frogs, there is a social dynamic in the plot that reaches us across the millennia, A noble needs to be coached by his slave in order that he might pass for being a slave.
The slave gets to call his master out. "No, no. You're getting it all wrong." The humor comes from the need of the master in the first place and from the audience's growing awareness that the slave may be at least the intellectual equal of his master,
Moliere takes on an impostor in his play, Tartuffe, wherein an individual known to be a role model is revealed to be nothing of the sort. One of the first plays performed to allow a woman character to be portrayed by a woman, we see a wife being smart enough to see the hypocrisy in the eponymous Tartuffe. She gets her husband to agree to hide under a table, while she engages Tartuffe in conversation and he begins to hit on her, demonstrating at least one of the wife's allegations about the man.
The real humor for the audience must have been electric. Here is a front rank character, a male, down on hi knees before a woman as he hides under the table and the woman drapes a tablecloth over it.
Wherever there is convention, there is fun to be made of it, and most ethnic/racial humor has to do with one culture's sense of superiority to another. At one point when you had a student you knew to be from Poland, you reminded him of the nature of ethnic humor with Poles as targets. You started with the Polish actress who was so dumb, she slept with a writer to advance her career, thus two zingers, a racial slur and a gender slur in one observation.
"Whom do the Poles jump on for their ethnic humor?" you asked.
Without hesitation, he had an answer. "Finns. We take it out on the Finns."
Not surprisingly, humorists are often moralists; Jonathan Swift author of the epic essay, "A Modest Proposal," was a clergyman, satirizing by masking his humor seem an actual sermon that might have got a bit out of hand.
Stephen Colbert has this same quality of seeming to speak toward a conventional tenet while at the same time mocking it. Who else had the humorist's vision of going at a sitting U.S. President by heaping such lavish praise on him that even the sitting U.S. President began to realize sport was being made of him.
The better humorists of modern times are those men and women who turn the light of inquiry on themselves, allowing us to laugh at their foible while conveniently forgetting our own of a similar nature.
The joke is always on us. The more we attempt to make this any less than the truth resident within it, the more we emphasize the truth of the observation.
You may not be an emperor, but humor is at least in this sense democratic, neither are you clothed.